Gambia decides, UN deaths, and Focus 2017: IRIN Top Picks

Every week, IRIN's team of editors curates a selection of humanitarian reports and opinion you may have missed, from in-depth analyses and features to academic studies and podcasts:

A shot in the arm for democracy?

If democracy was looking a bit frayed around the world, then the stunning win by the opposition in Gambia may inject a bit of hope that the bad guys don't always win.

The multiparty wave is three decades old in Africa. There have been victories, but many more setbacks. However, sometimes it does just seem that when it's time, it's time. And so an unlikely coalition of Gambia's fractious opposition, helmed by a little-known leader, has ridden popular anger over Yahya Jammeh's 22-year rule to victory. What happens next will be interesting.

Gambia is perhaps not so unusual. Half of all Africans live in functioning multiparty systems, according to a new Afrobarometer survey. The real question is whether pluralism improves people's lives: "you can't eat democracy" is a common aphorism. In 16 countries surveyed since 2002, "a steady, decade-long upward trend in demand for democracy has ended with a downward turn since 2012," notes Afrobarometer, disconcertingly.

"The quality of elections helps to explain demand for democracy," says the survey. "African countries with high-quality elections are more likely to register increases in popular demand for democracy than countries with low-quality elections." Government performance once elected to office may also play a part!

Keeping the lights on in Syria

Cities and towns still holding out against the regime of Bashar al-Assad are falling one by one, with the desperation in eastern Aleppo only the latest horrific example of how Syria's war is progressing, and fast. One of Assad's claims to legitimacy is his ability to provide services. In Idlib - the only province still controlled by rebels - leading actors are playing at the same game. In this report for The Century Foundation, Sam Heller gets into the nitty-gritty of how local councils, militant groups, and powerful families compete for influence and provide services like sanitation and street cleaning. This may seem like small fry as civilians are killed and forced to flee their homes in Aleppo, but the details Heller gives here help explain the dynamics of how aid is distributed, and ultimately how a population has managed to survive in a place that once seemed like a model of how a post-Assad Syria might look.

Has UN peacekeeping become more dangerous?

Maybe. That's the verdict - such that it is - of this report by the International Peace Institute. A new dataset from the UN's Department of Peacekeeping Operations provides information on fatalities for each mission since 1948. "The analysis reveals that overall UN fatalities are not substantively on the rise," says the report. That may come as a surprise, since: "At the same time, many UN peacekeeping practitioners believe that UN peacekeeping has become significantly more dangerous in recent years." The devil is in the details - in this case, details that the UN doesn't provide. The report points out that medical advances in recent years mean more wounded soldiers survive attacks and accidents. Therefore, a true assessment would need to include the number of attacks and injuries. "Unfortunately, the UN thus far does not systematically collect and make publicly available such data." Despite that rather unsatisfying conclusion, there is a lot of interesting analysis in this report, which "constitutes the most detailed study of UN fatality trends thus far".

The weapons pipeline from Iran to Yemen and Somalia

Iran is likely supplying the Houthi rebels in Yemen weapons, which are being shipped by dhow and transferred through Somali ports, according to this report by Conflict Armament Research. Researchers spent four weeks on three warships that patrol the Arabian Sea as part of the Combined Maritime Forces, a 31-nation naval partnership. During that time, the ships intercepted three dhows - traditional vessels in the region - all carrying weapons. The arms trade is notoriously difficult to document, but seizures that yielded serial numbers suggested the weapons and the dhows originated in Iran. The findings are limited, warns CAR, but they "provide some of the best evidence at hand and a level of confirmation that is usually absent from discussions of weapon flows into Yemen".

Focus 2017

ACAPS has released its annual Crisis Overview identifying 10 countries where humanitarian needs are likely to be highest in 2017, and four others facing a potential spike in needs over the next six months. The report relies on four years of data to measure the overall need for humanitarian assistance in each of the countries, the severity of the humanitarian crisis and the risk of the situation deteriorating further in the coming months. The 10 main countries of concern remain the same as last year, with the exception of Sudan, which has dropped from the list. But countries on the watchlist now include Venezuela and Zimbabwe, as well as the Northern Triangle region of Central America. A useful reference for aid organisations planning priorities and deployments for next year, this is also essential background reading for IRIN's editors.

One from IRIN:

Humanitarianism at the crossroads

Much ink has been spilt after the Brexit referendum and since Trump's election on the rise of Western populism and the threat this poses to the humanitarian system. What makes Antonio Donini's take more interesting is that he doesn't start from a defensive standpoint, trying to save anything. He clothes the current crisis of multilateralism in its recent historical context, explains what this means for the future of humanitarianism, and makes a few pragmatic suggestions. If it makes for depressing reading, this is only because we live in depressing times. Donini offers some solace with the notion that: "If the West is now in retreat, other centres of humanitarian discourse and practice are bound to blossom and grow." Cold comfort indeed for decision makers in the Global North, confronted by growing challenges and diminishing political will, but then again, as Donini reminds us: "There are no easy recipes for tackling what has become a system-wide existential crisis."

Coming up:

Global Forum on Migration and Development

Dhaka, Bangladesh 10-12 December

Policymakers and politicians from around the world gather in Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka, from 10-12 December for the first major meeting on migration since the high-level summit in New York in September. Attendees are expected to follow up on some of the commitments made in New York. These include plotting a road map for negotiations on the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration - slated for adoption in 2018. The aim of the Compact is to serve as a blueprint for responding to migration crises. Preceding the conference will be two civil society days, on Thursday and Friday. About half of the 300 participants will be migrants aiming to contribute to the discussion with ideas on how to implement migration policies in a "people-centered, needs-first, rights-based" way. There is a healthy tension here: civil society will be looking to policymakers to work towards a compact that includes some kind of binding mechanism, while member states will want to keep things as vague and non-binding as possible.

Source: IRIN.